David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: miklos jancso (page 1 of 2)

A Scene from Miklos Jancso’s Red Psalm

I’ve always thought of Jancso as one of the very few filmmakers, along with Godard, who could turn abstract ideas into visual sequences that could be absorbed without requiring viewers to engage in theorizing themselves. (In contrast, Pasolini’s Teorema is the sort of thing that demands active theoretical engagement not to be boring and banal. The same goes for most of the work of Alexander Kluge, though I like Kluge a lot more.) After abandoning concrete plot and character in The Red and the White, he relies on this talent to make his movies compelling. When it works, there and in Electra My Love, he is nearly unmatched. When it doesn’t work, as in Hungarian Rhapsody, I appreciate the successes even more.

The above clip is from Red Psalm. The sequence beginning about eight minutes in is for me one of his finest moments. He choreographs something abstract and historical into visceral, visual movement. It transcends the Communist restrictions and ideology without abandoning a coherent conceptual meaning, one which does not match up with the dogmatic dialogue.

Godard, though he tries hard, never quite manages to hold onto this sort of coherence, and I just get lost in the images and anarchic inventiveness.

Miklos Jancso: The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest

And then there’s this puzzler. Made in 1999 after a long break, this film sees Jancso and longtime writer Gyula Hernadi abandoning any indicators of their previous, consistent style. Most notably, there are no long takes in this film, making it nearly unrecognizable as a Jancso movie. Instead, we have 105 rather long minutes of sub-Beckett hijinks acted out by two evidently well-known Hungarian comedians (both were in Kontroll), interspersed with cameos from Jancso and Hernadi themselves. The movie doesn’t seem to go anywhere, though there are plenty of odd, deadpan jokes and oblique references to Hungarian history which were lost on me. (Odd that this movie’s slapstick travels less well than the art-house seriousness of Jancso’s earlier work.) Still, the general baseness of the dialogue between the two plays out as a constricted version of Bob and Ray, or perhaps more aptly Bouvard and Pecuchet.

Who knows? Jancso was pushing 80 when he made this, and such a drastic late-career shift is hard to figure. The cold hand of death? Senility? Boredom? Maybe I’ll have a better idea when I’m 80. But for now, I’m not rushing out to see the four sequels.

Andrew Horton has two articles, one on The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest and one on the fourth sequel, The Battle of Mohacs, which just happens to be about time travel.

Miklos Jancso: God Walks Backwards

A later film from Jancso, dating from 1991 and very topical at
that. It deals very specifically with the fall of Communism as
embodied by the Soviet coup against Gorbachev of that same
year. Jancso was nothing if not au courant; God Walks Backwards
is dizzying in its simultaneous immediacy and depthless irony.

Most of the film takes place in and around a mostly empty mansion
staked with television screens and cameras, as the old Communist
guard, newly-minted democrats, and hedonistic, cynical youth play out
the end of Communism as a farce. The democrats are hypocrites, denying
their past complicity to buy into the latest set of rhetoric that will
keep them in power. The hard-liners are clueless and pathetic; they
tremble just as the leaders of the coup did. And the youth walk around
with a video camera and a silent, naked woman in tow (sexist, yes, but
too true), shooting the action as though it were for nothing but their
own entertainment. Jancso’s long shots pass over the television
screens that present both the action in the mansion and the concurrent
broadcasts of the Soviet coup. A tank rolls into the yards with a rock
star on top (and that naked woman again), and these “democrats” kill
everyone, including the youth.

It is the most effective presentation of Debordian spectacle
in film that I have ever seen, revealing Michael Haneke as the amateur shock artiste that he is, and more remarkable given that Jancso
abandoned his more classicist leanings to adopt an uglier, harsher
contemporary style, all electricity and hum. (Though shot on film, it
often looks amazingly video-like.) There are the obvious points about
the inevitable hypocrisy of the transition from Communism to something
else and of the emptying of the assorted rhetoric. The fragmentation
brought by perestroika is there too, in more comprehensible form (to
me, at least) than in Kira Muratova’s The
Asthenic Syndrome
. For such a blatantly political and allegorical
film, Jancso never does bring a polemic to the table, and the final
self-reflexive scene, in which the actors and crew themselves are
subsumed first by decadence and then by machine gun fire, is Jancso’s
acknowledgement that such sincerity could never be: they too are an
instrumental part of the joke.

Miklos Jancso: Winter Wind (Sirokko)

Jancso is already in my pantheon of genius directors, all the more
from coming out of the backwaters of Eastern Europe under Communism; I
can’t think of another of his contemporaries that even approaches
him. The Round-Up is a brilliant, taut exercise in Kafka-esque
consequentiality, and The Red and the White is simply one of my
favorite films of all time.

Winter Wind is not as narrative as The Round-Up, nor
does it have the formalized brutality of The Red and the White,
but it is from the same period as them and qualifies as a minor
masterpiece. The historical background, only given at the very start
of the film, is that between the two world wars, Hungary is providing
assistance to Croatian nationalist separatists who wish for an
independent Croatia separate from Yugoslavia, which in 1929 was made a
dictatorship under Serbian King
. The film takes place on the Yugoslavian-Croatian
border, where Hungarian-supported Croatian terrorists are making raids
into Yugoslavia and conducting assassinations and such. Our hero,
Marko, returns from a raid and spends the entire movie in a Hungarian
safehouse with compatriots and Hungarian officials. He distrusts them
all intensely and interrogates (or kills) them, until…well, his
fears are well-founded, that’s all I’ll say.

Marko is defined by two characteristics alone: his nationalism and
his paranoia. Any other trait has been completely subsumed into the
service of these two aspects, and he is monomaniacal in his
obsessions. (The one funny moment involves his hatred for his
compatriot’s pet dog, which has been irritating him all the time in
the safehouse. A new terrorist trainee shows up and Marko, to test his
marksmanship, tells him to shoot the dog.) He separates himself from
all the other political figures on the grounds that no one is as pure
in their fervor as he is. Everyone else is using him and his cause.

He’s right. There is never a moment where he is taken aback or
surprised; his comprehension of the situation is total, as is his
paranoia. The only people to whom he shows a degree of trust are the
wholly powerless: a handful of Croatian children whom he trains to
kill and an abused prostitute sent by the Hungarian government to
service him. (He’s not interested.)

The movie is not about development; like The Red and the
, it’s a visceral portrayal of a situation. The brilliance of
it lies in how Jancso communicates the abstract conflict between the
idealists and the realpolitik sorts with pretty much no explicit
political speech. It is conveyed through their mannerisms, their
stances, their confidences and their paranoias.

Bela Tarr: Satantango

The doctor sat sourly beside the window, his shoulders and back resting against the cold and damp wall, and he did not even have to turn is head to be able to look out onto the squalid run-down group of houses through the gap between the rotting window-sash and the filthy sprigged curtains come down to him from his mother; he had only to look up from his book, a single glance sufficed to note the slightest change and though every once in a while it did chance to happen that something escaped his attention–either he was deep in thought or because he was abiding in a more distant part of the premises–even on such occasions his excellent hearing always came to his aid: but he was rarely, if ever, deep in thought and left his arm-chair padded wth blankets and his fur coat, even more rarely, the position of which had been determined by the accumulated experience of everyday activities–for he had succeeded in reducing the incidents forcing him to forsake his look-out post beside the window to the barest minimum. This was of course by no means an easy task of the sort that can be accomplished overnight. On the contrary: he had had to amass and arrange, in the most serviceable positions possible, the objects indispensable for eating, drinking, smoking, diary-writing, reading and countless other trifling tasks, and even had to renounce allowing the occasional error to go unpunished out of self-indulgence pure and simple.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai, “Knowing Something,” Satantango

Tarr’s movie adheres to the action of this chapter faithfully: the doctor sketches the scene from his window, drinks until he runs out, then goes to find more booze, visiting some prostitutes along the way. He runs into a little village girl who has a nasty fate in store for her, and eventually collapses out in the woods for the evening. Like much of Krasznahorkai’s fiction, it is narrated in this hyper-discursive, half-interior and half-omniscient style, with physical and verbal action buried amongst ever-burgeoning context. The film replaces this baroque style–it does not approximate it–with extremely long takes, often statically framed, of the objective action and little else. In this segment, one of the more unfilmable, few of the doctor’s thoughts are made public; instead we are treated to the doctor drinking, sketching, drinking, looking, tersely writing down what he sees through the window, drinking, walking, drinking, talking (though the conversation is greatly truncated and simplified from that of the book), drinking, and collapsing.

In Tarr’s subsequent film The Werckmeister Harmonies, based on Krasznahorkai’s brilliant The Melancholy of Resistance, the socio-political philosophical arguments simply never made it into the film. (A friend who had not read the book was at a loss to discern any political statement from Werckmeister.) The loss isn’t quite so drastic here because the action is on a smaller scale, but given that Krasznahorkai collaborated with Tarr on the screenplays for both movies, Krasznahorkai does significant violence to his own original statements. Krasznahorkai’s style and content is in no way approximated by Tarr’s techniques or the film’s stunning length (7.5 hours); Tarr replaces them with a cinematic language that is as unique to its medium as Krasznahorkai’s language is to his. The passage above gives no indication of the utter slowness of the corresponding scene in the film, nor of how long Tarr is willing to focus on a tableau of a man drinking at a window (or walking, or sketching) before anything happens. Nor does the text communicate the impact of the pervasive rain in the film.

The basics of the film are adequately covered in two other articles, “And Then There Was Darkness” and “The Melancholy of Resistance”. The film’s simultaneous fullness and emptiness makes it daunting to discuss, as it’s easy to abandon the fairly simple plot to focus on the details and eccentricities of visual technique, framing, chronology, and the like, since they are so prominent. It is too easy to say that the ten-minute shots of nothing (or one thing) and longueurs are “a different way of seeing,” or that they force us to look more closely and understand more about the characters. For one, they don’t: Tarr creates a unique mood and tempo, but he is ultimately as focused on surfaces as Bresson. The characters of The Werckmeister Harmonies are more fleshed out after thirty minutes than many of Santantango’s characters ever are. And it bespeaks an indulgence granted to those who are audacious enough to make a visually beautiful seven-hour film to begin with. I want to look at how the visual language and the film’s structure do or do not reflect on the thematic content of the film, and that means that no quarter must be given for the innate appealing (or boring) otherness of Tarr’s style alone.

First, some antecedents. Tarr is too often compared to Tarkovksy, when the two are almost polar opposites, and not just in their view of humanity. Tarkovsky continually is attempting to bring out aspects of his landscapes, while Tarr burrows deeper into it. Tarkovsky will film a clump of underwater reeds in an uncommonly beautiful way, and awe is usually one of his goals. Tarr does not give us the extraordinary; he overdoses on the ordinary. Static shots of rusty stoves reinforce their decrepitude; rain and empty fields overflow the film. Tarr has more in common with his fellow Hungarian Miklos Jancso, but aside from lacking Jancso’s brilliant sense of physical space, Tarr is not as aggressively artificial as Jancso, where the camera is as much an actor as anyone. The stylistic heritage is there, but I think it’s a mistake to make too much of a connection.

Tarr’s visual style is ultimately simpler than either of these two, and it relies primarily on two techniques. The first is the static tableau. Tarr often uses slow tracking across these tableaux, but he just as often stays absolutely stationary on a noticeably composed shot. People may drift in and out of the frame, or they may be as fixed in it, or they may caterwaul within it, but the camera almost never follows a character in the normal way. Likewise, the second technique is the extreme close-up of a person’s face while they talk: their face is not contained within the frame, and the viewer is sometimes unsure of their placement in the environment or the placement of others.

There is a bit of Bresson in the tableaux, but the influence of (late) Carl Dreyer is more apparent in their lack of flash. Like Dreyer, Tarr sticks with basics and avoids the ornate; like Dreyer, he uses shots that are almost stage-like in their geometric construction, most notably in the tavern sequence in the middle of the film. But the decentralization of the people from these scenes comes from another source entirely: Antonioni. Godard has used such destabilized scenes, but Antonioni made depersonalized camera drift his specialty. And while they work in very different moods and milieux, Antonioni’s relation of form to theme is extremely helpful in deciphering Tarr’s more oblique constructions.

To be continued…

[Satantango is playing at MOMA until next week. One dead body. Tons of drinking. Cat torture. Waggish says check it out.]

[Also see Zach Campbell’s incisive commentary.]

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